Louis, Joe (1914-1981)

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Louis, Joe (1914-1981)

Boxer Joe Louis was the first African-American "household name" familiar to most white Americans. During his reign as heavyweight boxing champion from 1938 to 1949, Louis did what no other black athlete had done before: He earned the respect and devotion of a mass audience of middle-class whites across the nation. His 1938 victory over Max Schmeling came to symbolize the conflict between the democratic United States and Nazi Germany, while providing African-Americans with a national celebrity. According to biographer Richard Bak, "In his day he was the most famous black man in America." Louis's heroics in the ring came to represent the potential ability of African-Americans to overcome racism and discrimination. Before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, Joe Louis truly was "The Great Black Hope."

Joe Louis was born Joseph Louis Barrow in Lexington, Alabama, on May 13, 1914. He accompanied his family to Detroit soon thereafter and began his boxing career in the seamy, impoverished Black Bottom section of the city. In his first amateur bout, he was knocked down seven times. Yet with the help of manager John Roxborough, the aspiring athlete soon honed a powerful right cross and a matching left hook—acquiring the distinctive compact style that would be his trademark throughout his career. By 1934, Louis had worked his way from the Brewster gym to a victory in the 175-pound championship match at the U.S. Amateur Athletic Union. He turned professional on July 4, 1934.

In the three years that followed, Louis defeated a veritable who's who of boxing's greatest stars. He won his first twenty-seven fights, twenty-three by knockout. Among his victims were legends Max Baer, Paolino Uzcudun, and Natie Brown. Yet he drew national attention only after trouncing former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera at New York's Madison Square Garden. The Louis-Carnera bout, coinciding with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's preparations for his attack on Ethiopia, acquired symbolic significance: In an era when nations prided themselves on the performances of their athletes, Louis's victory over the Italian Carnera came to represent, in the American consciousness, the Ethiopian underdogs in their struggle against the technologically superior armies of fascist Italy. The fight also instantly transformed Louis into black America's most famous symbol. Following the victory, thousands of celebrants poured into the streets of Harlem.

Despite a knockout loss to Germany's Max Schmeling in 1936, Louis earned a shot at heavyweight champion James J. Braddock through subsequent victories over Jack Sharkey and Bob Pastor. Braddock and Louis met on July 22, 1937, at Chicago's Comiskey Park. Tensions ran high as the prospect of an African-American heavyweight champion angered many whites. The only previous black boxer to hold the title, Jack Johnson, had been forced to flee the country under threat of imprisonment after having a relationship with a white woman. Yet when Louis delivered a come-from-behind knockout blow in the eighth round to assume the heavyweight title, white America responded with subdued admiration. Black America went wild. From that moment forward, many African Americans came to believe that the future of their struggle for equality depended upon the continued success of the "Brown Bomber." Hundreds of thousands of African-Americans followed his every match on radio; the black press hounded him for his opinions on the issues of the day. He even became the subject of a popular Duke Ellington song. Rather than rest on his laurels, the world's most famous black man returned to the ring to defend the honor of his country.

The second Louis-Schmeling match, at Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938, was arguably the most celebrated event in the sport's history. It was also one of the shortest. Louis dominated the fight from the first punch, and only two minutes and eight seconds had elapsed before Louis knocked Schmeling to the mats with a pair of broken vertebra. Throughout much of the North and Midwest, the new heavyweight champion became the first black celebrity to appeal to people of all races. Louis added to his popularity when he put his career on hold to join the war effort against Germany, enlisting in the army as a private and mustering out as a sergeant. During his military service, he also appeared in war propaganda films for the U.S. government and fought exhibition bouts to raise funds for military causes.

Louis's return to boxing after World War II was heralded by the media, who derided his opponents as members of "Bum of the Month Club." By 1949, when he retired long enough for Ezzard Charles to acquire the heavyweight title, Louis had earned a reputation as boxing's all-time greatest star. By century's end, his division record of twenty-five successful title defenses was still standing. Louis returned to the ring briefly in 1950 and 1951. He lost a fifteen-round decision to Charles in his debut and was later knocked out in eight rounds by future heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano. A man who knew when to quit, Louis then retired permanently. He left one of boxing's most impressive career records: 71 fights, 68 wins, 54 knockouts. In addition to Baer, Braddock, and Schmeling, his list of unsuccessful opponents included "Jersey Joe" Walcott, Billy Conn, and Jimmy Bivins.

Like many early celebrities, Louis experienced difficulty adjusting to life out of the limelight. Although he had won over $4 million in purses over the years, poor financial management left the retired boxer deep in debt. In addition, he faced unpaid federal income taxes. "I just don't know where the money went," he lamented. "I wish I did. I got 50 percent of each purse and all kinds of expenses came out of my cut." By the mid-1950s, Louis had descended into a sedentary life of emotional trauma and narcotics abuse. He earned his living as a greeter at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. In the words of his biographer, Richard Bak, "Joe was battling his own demons during the 1960s, so the civil rights movement passed him by." He died in Las Vegas on April 12, 1981.

Yet if Joe Louis didn't actively take part in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he—more than almost any other individual—made it possible. The 1930s were dark days for African-Ameri-cans. Most paths to achievement, including most professional sports, were off-limits to blacks. Boxing, which Bak terms "a pretty nefarious sport," offered one of society's few arenas for interracial competition. Joe Louis capitalized on the opportunity that boxing afforded and showed black Americans that, given a fair chance, they could equal or better even the most accomplished whites. He also demonstrated to many white Americans that such success didn't have to be hostile or unpalatable. When Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey decided to integrate baseball during the 1940s, he told his scouts to find him "someone just like Joe Louis." Even the popularity of Martin Luther King among Northern white liberals during the mid-1950s was, in part, a consequence of Louis's success in convincing many whites that black Americans could handle publicity and leadership responsibly. Tributes to the world's greatest boxer now abound: a sports stadium in Detroit, a postage stamp, a two-ton monument by sculptor Robert Graham. As reporter Jimmy Cannon once said of him: "Louis was a credit to his race … the human race."

—Jacob M. Appel

Further Reading:

Bak, Richard. Joe Louis: The Great Black Hope. Dallas, Taylor, 1996.

Fleischer, Nathaniel S. The Louis Legend. New York, The Ring, 1956.

Kessler, Gene. Joe Louis: The Brown Bomber. Racine, Whitman, 1936.

Louis, Joe, and Barbara Munder. Joe Louis: 50 Years an American Hero. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Louis, Joe, with Edna Rust and Art Rust, Jr. Joe Louis: My Life. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Mead, Chris. Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America. New York, Scribner, 1985.

Nagler, Barney. Brown Bomber. New York, World Publishing, 1972.

Van Deusen, John. Brown Bomber: The Story of Joe Louis. Philadelphia, Dorrance and Company, 1940.

Van Every, Edward. Joe Louis, Man and Super-Fighter. New York, Frederick A. Stokes, 1936.